Kate Chisholm

The power of words | 3 May 2018

Plus: the joy of In Our Time, and are we witnessing a golden age of Arabic film?

The power of words | 3 May 2018
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‘For me rhyming was normal,’ said Benjamin Zephaniah, reading from his autobiography on Radio 4. Back in the 1960s, on Saturday afternoons in their house in Hockley, Birmingham, where Zephaniah grew up with his seven siblings, the drinks trolley would come out and the record player be plugged in — Desmond Dekker, Millie Small and Prince Buster — ‘the lyrics of Caribbean life’. The church, too, gave him a love of words and vocal performance, Zephaniah delivering his first gig by reciting a list of the books of the Bible both ways, forwards and in reverse order.

The music and the poetry were part of everyday life, ‘it was how we communicated’. But so, too, were the ‘black bastard’ attacks, being told by a friend, ‘Sorry you can’t come home. My Dad doesn’t like black people’, the need to become ‘a good fighter’. Dyslexic at school before the condition was recognised, Zephaniah was told that he was stupid and ‘a born failure’. He began truanting and fighting and was arrested for burglary (he ran a gang of thieves stealing car parts). He once opened the boot of a Ford Cortina only to find in it the leg of a man. He put the leg back in, but too late; his fingerprints were all over it.

Before long he was sleeping with a gun under his pillow, and had been close to three killings as well as losing a close friend ‘to a life sentence’. He was also, though, learning how ‘to think like a poet’. By 1980 he had published a book of poetry and was using his gift with words to speak out against the police, the racism, the discrimination. ‘I had fire in my belly and I only needed a microphone.’ Now he lives in Lincolnshire, where he grows his own vegetables and listens to that archetypal middle England programme, Gardeners’ Question Time.

The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah (produced by Celia de Wolff) was a discomfiting listen. Zephaniah pulls no punches when it comes to talking about the racism that has shaped his life or the mischief he got up to in response to it. His tales of street crime and the ‘blues parties’ held in empty houses, which started at 11 o’clock and went on all night, the bass revved up to ensure that windows two streets away shook to the beat, were uncomfortably familiar. The gentle, lilting rhythm of the way he speaks was so at odds with the life he was telling us about, the voice as a great deceiver.

Last week’s In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg (produced by Simon Tillotson) was one of those thrilling episodes where a whole new world opens up momentarily as you begin to think you might understand the mysteries of particle physics only to realise by the programme’s end that the clouds of confusion have covered over again. Bragg and his team of experts (Professor Frank Close, Dr Helen Heath and Dr Simon Jolly) were talking about protons, theories developed by Ernest Rutherford in the 1910s about the first particles to emerge from the Big Bang.

‘What size are they?’ asks Bragg, always pushing his guests to make things as clear and vivid as possible. ‘A million atoms fill a single hair,’ Close replies, after explaining that protons are the seeds of atoms and that an atom has a cluster of positive charges at its core surrounded by an orbiting halo of electrons. It’s like a tiny planetary system.

‘Fine,’ says Bragg. ‘I think I’m still on board.’

So was I — at the time. But the real excitement of In Our Time is listening to the physicists and hearing their enthusiasm, their intelligence, their skill in grasping these ineffable truths, talking about protons as if they have touched, smelled, seen them, when in fact they exist as yet only as theories about how matter came into being. As Jolly said, quoting Isaac Asimov, the most important words in science are not ‘Eureka’ but ‘That’s funny?’

The Cultural Frontline on the World Service this week hosted four Arabic film-makers whose films are a response to the chaos that so many countries in the Middle East are now experiencing. Ironically some people have referred to a golden age of Arabic film, with so many stories to tell and so much originality in the way they are being told. ‘The chaotic situation we’re all living in brings forth dynamism, energy and inventiveness,’ says the Iraqi-born Maysoon Pachachi, but to speak of a golden age would deny the reality of what people are living through in the Arab world.

Pachachi began making films after being glued to the TV during the 1991 Gulf war and realising that it was all like a video game, ‘You never saw an ordinary Iraqi person speaking about the war.’ She was in London at the time and began interviewing Iraqi women who had fled their country, encouraging them to talk about the experience of losing their home, living in exile, dealing with difference, and from that creating a documentary that takes their stories and makes them bigger, more connected. ‘In creative work,’ she says, ‘you can repair and put together something that’s been shattered in the real world.